The media has been abuzz with talk about the Russian airstrikes in Syria. More than a few people have asked me about it. This is a record of my thoughts immediately after hearing the first news.
I haven’t gone to any great trouble to find out the names of places hit or who did what when or whatever. I don’t really need to. I have been expecting Russia to become (more overtly) involved in the Syrian/Iraqi conflict for quite a while now. The news reports I’ve read confirmed the expected: Moscow is not yet picking sides, but is definitely picking targets that will provoke Washington to double-down on its already deep investment in meaningless, expensive actions in the Middle East.
The frustrating part about those “news reports”, however, is they they purport to be news reports but are just pages and pages of unfounded speculation designed to satisfy emotional needs. None attempt to explain how Moscow’s actions may fit into the framework of this or that possible ongoing strategy, evaluate western assumptions about what is going on, determine whether or not Moscow’s activity supports or challenges those assumptions, or highlight any areas where Russian actions require further analysis due to some evident incongruity with whatever was previously assumed to be happening in the world.
Obviously we’ve gotten something wrong or else we would have seen this coming (well, a few of us did, but we aren’t the ones anyone pays attention to). None of that is addressed in the media. But then again neither truth nor analysis nor truthful analysis is the business that media is in. It is in the business of selling advertizing, impressions, user data and click metrics as cheaply as possible, and sensationalism is the best tool at hand for that (other than porn, but that’s already a saturated market).
The explanation the media seems obsessed with is that Putin’s goal is to support his good buddy Assad. The slightly more interesting version goes on to explain that neither Assad nor Putin have attacked ISIS directly, but have instead attacked the smaller factions. Some speculate that this is so that Assad can force any decision about foreign support to be a polar decision between himself or ISIS. By excluding other factions as viable alternatives he can appear to be the only reasonable choice by comparison, the lesser of two evils. At least that is an interesting take on things, and probably not far from the truth. Assad’s truth, anyway. But it doesn’t explain Putin at all; he doesn’t have a horse in that race unless we assume that he just really, really likes Assad.
To believe in this deep and abiding love between those two naughty star-struck dictators we have to answer a few difficult questions: Why is the only support a few airstrikes on minor targets? Why hasn’t Putin leveraged any of his other influence in the region to gain support for Assad? Where is Kadyrov & co. when they are needed? Why hasn’t Tehran been empowered/proded by Moscow to do anything about their (supposed) mutual pal? Where is the old Hezbollah magic when its needed? Why he has waited this long to actually do anything?
I could go on, but suffice to say this isn’t about any Putin-Assad bromance as much as it is about distracting Washington. Its pretty obvious which of those two goals is more important to Russian strategy.
“Hmmm… should our strategy focus on Washington or Damascus… I just can’t make up my mind! Man, this political stuff is really hard! Decisions decisions…”
— What is not going through Putin’s mind
It is silly to concoct an explanation which consists purely of a flimsy, unsupported assertion (“to support Assad”) and then drag a reader through page after page of humanistic moralizations, vague calls for the “international community to act”, regurgitation of random violence statistics, fun factoids about how shitty life in the Middle East might be, or even go off on a long explanation about target selection without addressing why Assad would be Putin’s choice. Even that is premature without addressing the possibility that perhaps Putin has not made a choice. It should absolutely be explained that for Moscow there does not have to be a meaningful distinction of choice. Neither of these guys are amateurs nor is either stuck in the Geopolitics lvl1 Tutorial Playground of this particular game. (Washington, on the other hand…)
I saw some rather lengthy articles about the Russian airstrikes, many well over 4 pages. None of them referenced the history of external influence in the region. Not a single mention of the Turks, not a single mention of how WWI impacted the region, not a single mention of the whole King Faisal I thing (no, not that set of Faisals, the Iraqi/Syrian ones), no reference to how the typical “put a minority in power to foster future political dependency on you” play works (ever wonder how the tiny Alawite minority came to be in charge?). Not any of that. The media simply makes it appear as though Putin is desperately in love with his long-time buddy Assad — two great pals against the world, backs against the wall, willing to do anything for each other. Which is ridiculous.
Off the cuff I would say Putin is definitely angling to create space for Assad, but the reason for that is probably to achieve two goals, neither being “to support Assad”:
- Tie Washington down in a pointless game (or rather deepen its investment in the ongoing one).
- Maintain the status-quo in Syria.
(There are very likely peripheral goals and incidental benefits to any action Putin takes, and some of them may turn out to have interesting long-term repercussions.* These are just the goals that fit this action in this place at this time the most closely.)
The West, and especially the US, has already invented a rhetoric that mandates unlimited political agitation whenever anything unrelated to Europe or the US happens in the Middle East. Lighting a fire larger than a BBQ grill, for example, may cause a 4-hour special on some news channel, or maybe even a Muslim riot in London or Paris (or more likely a cartoon which itself prompts such rioting — strange that lengthy, detailed, deliberate editorials don’t have the same effect). This rhetoric prompts Washington to invest ever more deeply in pointless actions designed to deflect other pointless actions which may or may not come to pass in the Middle East (like countering Russian influence with Assad, for example). The West is a gigantic, over-charged Van de Graaff generator right now, rubbing itself to pieces internally with angst, just waiting for some poor lab student to come too close. This is as easy for Moscow to exploit as unattended lab equipment is for mischievous high schoolers.
By attacking anything that is both not Assad and not ISIS in Syria Putin is subject to the following effects:
- Very little money
- Very little military supply
- Exactly zero international standing (any faction that matters has already decided their support/neutrality/opposition to Moscow)
- Actual pilot experience
- A live, public, and very well photographed showcase for Russia’s new aircraft and weapons (Hey! Its not 1988 anymore!)
- Vastly improved domestic political standing (He made a point of being seen sidestepping both the “save face at the UN before doing whatever we were going to do anyway” and “coalition building” games. In fact, he made the “international community” in general and the UN in particular look like troublesome trivialities to Moscow. Russians love this. Incidentally, Americans would too…)
- Nothing (the probability that Washington will manage to comprehend what is actually going on and turn it around on Moscow is very close to zero)
- Massive media blather and especially social media buzz in the US (Obama’s kryptonite seems to be social media)
- Massive white-knighting around the world about how “someone should do something!” where “someone” always really means “Americans” and “do something” always means “blow something/someone up (but without actually offending or hurting anyone or actually blowing anything up… on second thought, just talk convincingly tough about taking action and then censor the media to make it appear that things that don’t affect my life at all but rile me up all the same have actually ceased to occur)”
- The US to double-down on its “anti-terror” investment in one form or another
- The US to bleed money it doesn’t have
- The US to commit resources it can’t afford
- Prolong ongoing American strategic distractions in politically irrelevant areas
- Prolong ongoing developmental and structural distractions within the US military (Washington has a strategic need to widen the gap in space tech, turn the Air Force into the Space Force and extend its naval dominance to space, not yet another multi-billion-dollar plan for a truck design that would be great if we get in a time machine and re-occupy Iraq but useless in actual force-on-force infantry operations.)
Distracting Washington is the primary goal, not actually supporting Assad or causing problems for this or that American-aligned faction in Syria. Support for Assad and causing problems for whichever groups happen to be American proxies this week is incidental to the goal of cheaply stirring shit up. He’s trying to suck the Americans in somewhere that is cheap for Moscow but very expensive for Washington (both politically and financially).
This strategy worked very well for him in Afghanistan. It bought him an opening to get its way with Poland (after the demise of almost the entire Polish government in a profoundly well-timed plane crash inside of Russia), invade Georgia, take over Ukraine and demonstrate that American security promises are empty whenever Washington is distracted. These actions have had the side effect of deflating the European economy, prompting France to create an opening for itself to re-establish its West African empire and destroy ENI’s main gas alternative (by blowing up Lybia — and before you ask, no that had nothing at all to do with Ghaddafi, freedom or the “Arab Spring”).
Making your opponent expend massively more effort than you do is a winning strategy. The US actually used to be very good at making this sort of play itself, but has apparently lost the touch ever since it bought into the totally bullshit idea that peace was about to break out all over the world with the fall of the Iron Curtain. Oops.
Interestingly, one of the most outspokenly “pro-peace” sort of nations, France, has recovered its knack for both low-cost/high-yield military operations and empire building all while continuing to make the Americans look like the “real bad guy” most of the time (even if its half tongue-in-cheeck). Paris and Moscow are both riding pretty sizeable winning streaks achieved through some heavy-duty, but subtle, geopolitical maneuvering over the last fifteen years**. Impressive.
The appearance of support for Assad works in Putin’s favor because it makes Washington get even more intense about not being his supporter, and reality be damned because politicians are absolutely going to be tripping over each other to be the first to condemn and then be seen as acting against these “ill intended and dangerous Russian activities”.
The air strikes aren’t designed to actually support Assad winning the civil war, they are designed to create space for him. This delays any conclusion to a conflict which is itself useful to Moscow. This gives Moscow time to decide whether it is worth the trouble to support the Alawites once things are over, and judging by how easy it was to dupe Washington into blowing a decade of prosperity in Afghanistan for absolutely no reason at all, it may just be able to turn this strategy around again in Syria.
The Turks, Sunnis and Kurds are all much more important geopolitically. Being a sponsor of Assad’s Syria would turn out the same way Russia’s “sponsorship” of Iran has turned out (lukewarm on the hottest of days). The Arabs are fundamentally more important to Moscow, so the Persians will only get anything from Moscow when it would hurt Washington to give Tehran anything. Other than that, they are just the red-headed stepchildren Russia doesn’t really have much use for. These are “meh, take-em-or-leave-em” allies. The Alawites in Syria are in very nearly the same situation, as evidenced by several political generations of foreign influence now.
[* This would be true of any of a list of potential Russian military moves right now. Listed above are the two primary short-term goals against which the decision was made to actually order sorties in Syria and at this time. Consider that an incidental outcome of invading Georgia at the the end of August 2008 was crashing the European economy. Once it was demonstrated that the East European side of the Yen carry trade was not a secure way to underwrite Western European securities that carry trade unwound and with it quite a few other things that happened to be very ready to get blown over at the next strong wind. People were very deeply invested, both emotionally and financially, in being blind to this risk. If this were a real risk it meant that the pan-European dream didn’t make sense. It meant that war was not actually “a thing of the past”. It meant that pure egalitarianism was unworkable. The reality that offensive power still matters more than the opinions of intellectuals who spend most of their time trying to not offend one another is downright scary. This emotional barrier gave birth to a worldview which made the bizarre explanations that invoke a mysterious “American economic contagion” from two years prior sound like a reasonable definition of “the problem” — the economy is full of highly technical issues and mysterious pitfalls, after all. It is much more comfortable to think that “the Americans” might be the problem than either “the Russians” or the chance that the European economy itself might be inherently unsustainable. Of course, these explanations miraculously avoided any mention of the unopposed Russian invasion aimed at one of two non-Russian pipelines feeding Europe’s economy the week before the crash. So while Putin’s reasoning behind making the attacks where and when they did focus around the two goals above this is a period in which he stands to gain a lot by making very public demonstrations of political and military strength.]
[ ** What France and Russia have been doing is not evil. Geopolitics is what it is, and its not going to change for you or me. You can’t start moralizing about it just because your side is on the losing end of some issue, or some particular aspect of history is emotionally significant to you (right now), or because you really, really want the world to be some great centrally-administered perfect Eutopia. That sort of thinking doesn’t get anyone anywhere. Letting your emotions get the better of you in politics — thinking in terms of “what should be” instead of “what is” — only confers blindness.]